You’ll Fall in Love with these Aegean Sea Islands
It’s easy to fall in love with the Aegean Sea Islands. Eddie and I visited some of them aboard the Road Scholar vessel Aegean Odyssey for twenty-two days. This story highlights four gems: Skiathos, Samos, Mykonos, and Santorini. Pick a favorite for your next vacation. Or if you can’t decide, do some island hopping and see them all!
Skiathos – means “The rich shade of the trees.” You’ll love this Aegean Sea Island for its picture-perfect crescent-shaped beaches and pine forest wonderlands.
When the tender boat let us off at the harbor, Skiathos Town was not open yet. But that didn’t hinder our enjoyment of the island. We walked upwards along the narrow, winding streets past quaint shops, restaurants, museums, and taverners, intimate-looking whitewashed structures with deep blue shutters. We continued until we came to Skiathos Cemetery, high on a hill, where we saw sweeping ocean views. Below, we saw the perfect crescent-shaped beach, dazzling white against a sapphire shore. Later, we learned that there are over 60 beaches scattered around Skiathos, only 7.5 miles long and 3.7 miles wide.
People also love Skiathos for its forests, with hundreds of miles of cleared trails following ancient trade routes and donkey trails. The trails pass beaches, waterfalls, monasteries, watchtowers, and sometimes even glimpses of wildlife. The island is considered a walker’s paradise worthy of fairytales. Green covers two-thirds of the island, designated “Aesthetic Forest of Natural Beauty.”
With stunning beaches, fairy tale forests, and traditional whitewashed villages, Skiathos is one reason people love the Aegean Sea Islands.
Samos – loved as a wine-growing paradise with a warm welcome.
Oenophiles might love the Northeastern Aegean Sea Island of Samos because of its world-famous wine. Home to two wine-making facilities, Samos wine is said to be the Nector of the Greek Gods and native Samian – Pythagoras (mystic, philosopher, and mathematician.) Sample the sweet and delicate wine at the Winery in Malagari, located by the sea in a 19th-century stone building. Immerse yourself in wine’s history, legend, and lore at The Museum of Samos Wine.
Visit Samos after harvest, during festival season, and you’ll find wine pouring freely in villages throughout the island. Samos is one reason people love the Aegean Sea Islands.
But there’s much more to Samos than the wine. For its lush beauty and quaint fishing village atmosphere, the island is known as the “Queen of the Aegean.”
Mykonos – party favorite of the rich and famous – why people love the Aegean Sea Islands
Mykonos is a destination island of millionaires and billionaires. With white sandy beaches, clear blue water, incredible food, and a cosmopolitan party atmosphere, it’s easy to see why the rich and famous love it.
In addition to the unique, world-famous party venue, visitors also love Mykonos for its Cycladic architecture (whitewashed houses, alleyways, and chapels.) The lovely area of Mykonos Town is called “Little Venice.” There’s a church for almost every family, over 1200, owing to tradition. Families want to send off their departed loved ones on the right path. Some are open for a glimpse of the lovely interiors or a prayer. And Mykonos, like many Greek islands, is an open-air archaeological site, with ruins at nearly every turn. Mykonos is why people love the Aegean Sea Islands!
While Mykonos is not friendly to the budget minded, it’s still possible on a modest budget. One way is to visit during the shoulder months of May and June or September and October, avoiding the peak celebrity months of July and August. Then, prices are lower, and it’s not as crowded. Also, these months avoid the winter, October to April, when the skies are grey, and wind and rain are howling across the island.
But if you have a yacht full of money and want to rub shoulders with the rich and famous – think Kardashians – go to Mykonos in July and August.
Santorini – Loved as the island of romance.
Santorini sits atop the jagged peaks of an active volcano, its caldera lying beneath the sea. The views, lunar landscapes, and volcanic beaches combine with world-famous Cycladic architecture to underscore the rarest beauty, especially the village of Oia. Our guide Sami joined us on the deck as we approached the beautiful island at sunrise. We noticed some of the crew on the lower deck. Sunrise and sunset there are awe-inspiring! Could there be a more romantic place for a wedding? A couples getaway? Or any excuse to go there? You can even stay in rock caves or windmill structures.
There’s not much more to say about Santorini except listen closely for the donkey bells on the narrow streets. It means that a herd is coming swiftly, and you need to step out of the way! Thankfully Eddie was watching above and yelled to me, “Get out of the way!” I stepped aside in time, barely getting a picture of the donkeys’ behinds.
Skiathos, Samos, Mykonos, and Santorini are four examples of why people love the Aegean Sea Islands.
For more stories at home in South Carolina, the U.S., and worldwide, go to Marie Goff, Travel Notes & Storytelling.
There’s no denying the striking beauty of the Aegean Islands. For that reason, millions of people visit them each year. Even way past the peak season, some areas are crowded. For example, in Mykonos and Santorini, getting a picture clear of other people was almost impossible. Even with crowds, these islands are too beautiful to miss! But if you want to avoid crowds, there are many other beautiful islands in the Aegean Archipelago. And you may want to consider visiting several that are geographically close. Some of the islands we visited are in different parts of the Aegean Sea and not close together. I found this comprehensive guide helpful, Chasing the Donkey, Aegean Sea Island Guide.
In addition to the aesthetics of the Greek islands, it’s also important to look below the surface to understand the culture, the controversial issues, and the impacts of world events. The after-harvest festivals in Samos are good examples. The Feast of Agia Marina in July and the feast in honor of the Dormition of the Virgin in August, and others, are accompanied by traditional food, music, and dancing. Consider these within the context of the historical and religious traditions of the islanders when wine production was vital as the source of income. As an interesting side note, the Catholic Church of the Vatican uses the sweet wine of Samos (exclusively) for the holy mass.
The term “chasing the donkeys” brings up a hot-button issue. In the past, before modern roads and transportation, most locals in Santorini would have had one or two donkeys and likely would not have survived there long without them. These important pack animals continue to provide services in some areas there.
Ancestors of today’s donkeys and mules helped to build islands such as Santorini before modern means of transporting goods.
But now, with so many tourists riding for pleasure, the potential to tax the endurance of these iconic animals is high. The herd we saw in Santorini looked very well cared for, and it was also exciting to get a glimpse of them.
Finally, the significant impact of the migrant crisis, which began in 2015, continues to have a substantial effect on the Aegean Islands. Over one million migrants and asylum seekers fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan started making their way to Europe. As for Samos, just five miles from the waterfront is a refugee camp that houses approximately 1,000 refugees, some in crowded barracks surrounded by fences and some in tents or no shelter outside the fence. When desperate refugees began arriving on Samos, sympathetic islanders recall doing everything they could to help, providing blankets, clothes, and food. Overall, there are over 50,000 refugees in Greece. It’s a lingering, complex situation with no sign of resolution soon.
How We Got There
Road Scholar, “not for profit,” is the “world’s largest and most innovative creator of experiential learning opportunities.” Our ship, The Aegean Odyssey, was a small vessel with a maximum capacity of 350 people. There is no comparison to the quality of the guides and lecturers. Compared to thousands aboard other ships, getting to know the lecturers and guides is easy. To learn more, go to Road Scholar.